A rainbow of snow hats came together as the group of young trackers hovered over a tiny path of tracks in the fresh snow. With an arm outstretched towards a circled track, 10-year-old Fyn Kynd of Searsmont explained the pattern to his campmates.
“A really good way to tell squirrels is that the front feet are a lot closer together than the back feet,” he said in a soft voice.
The children held their laminated tracking cards close to their noses as they verified the track.
“This is the best tracking I’ve seen this winter,” Tanglewood environmental educator Leah Trommer said as she fished out her compass to measure the track.
Further on down the trail, Fyn paused with his brown eyes looking up, his freckled cheeks flushed from the cold. The children, who had their eyes trained to the ground all morning, followed his line of sight to a standing dead tree, riddled with cavities.
“Those are pileated woodpecker holes,” said Fyn. “I can tell because they’re square. And sapsuckers don’t do that many holes.”
Fyn was one of 24 children who attended winter camp Wednesday during their school spring break at Tanglewood Camp in Lincolnville. Children ages 8-13 arrived at 9 in the morning at the end of Tanglewood Road to be shuttled by snowmobile to Big Pine Lodge, built in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Their two-day camp, Winter Survivors, was a program of outdoor activities lead by three experienced environmental educators.
“We’re completely full, with a waiting list,” said Trommer. “This had definitely been the highest demand that we’ve seen. We had to create eight extra slots. A few kids have never been here before, which is pretty exciting.””
The sunny morning was devoted to winter tracking in the forest, which sheltered three groups of young trackers from the biting wind.
Trommer came across a tale-telling route of a snowshoe hare and even discovered the scarred saplings it nibbled at, the snow disturbed by the hare’s long feet. The children gathered around, sinking down into the snow for a closer look, while Trommer explained how snowshoes help humans walk on the surface of the snow just like the hare — just one adaptation to the winter environment that humans and animals share.
In addition to paw prints, the group sought out holes in the snow, often by the bases of trees, leading to the snow tunnel system dug by small animals that live in the subnivean zone, the area near the earth insulated by the snow. Mountaineers and campers take advantage of the same insulated zone when they dig snow caves to keep warm while sleeping.
“I want to learn how to stay warm,” said Hayden Thibeault, 8, of Lincolnville.
His wish was granted when the last hours of the day were spent hollowing out two enormous quinzhees — snow shelters of piled, packed snow — in a nearby meadow. If dug beneath the level of the snow, the shelter’s internal temperature will be above freezing. Packed with people, it can get toasty.
For lunch, the children gathered in the lodge, warmed by a large wood stove vented by a beautiful, stone chimney. Imperfect paper stars hung on strings from the ceiling and twirled as the children rustled around in their snow pants.
“I feel kind of tired and a little hungry — and kind of relaxed after I’ve wasted all of my energy,” said Joseph Potter, 8, of Belfast as he ate his sandwich and talked about books with other children sitting at the long table.
Most of the children agreed that they wouldn’t be outside if they weren’t at camp — except for Fyn, who wanders around his family’s 26-acre farm and rides on his Belgian horse, Big Buddy.
“I’m in the woods so much, I just learned it,” he said, referring to his knowledge about animals and tracking. “I think I want to have a rehabilitation center where I can rehabilitate animals and birds.”
Out of Fyn’s home-school materials, his favorite books are the ones about nature and animals — the things he witnesses outside.
But even the children who spent lunchtime talking about their favorite video games were enthusiastic about their time at camp and the outdoor activities. Some were veteran campers who look forward to their time in the Tanglewood forest.
“I know this place like the back of my hand, pretty much,” said Jaydon Schumacket, 10, of Hope, who has attended the summer camp five times and the winter camp three times. “I love this place. Wintertime, I just like hiking around the trails — snowshoeing, big time. It’s all fun. And the summertime, I just like playing and sitting around the fire on stumps.”
Tanglewood, in partnership with the University of Maine, has been educating people about outdoors recreation and the importance of preserving the environment since 1982. People of all ages attend Tanglewood programs to learn about nature, build leadership and teamwork skills and to simply have fun.
The Tanglewood forest in Lincolnville is part of the 940-acre Camden Hills State Park and features more than 7 miles of foot trails that remain open year-round for hiking and skiing.
“It’s such a neat area here,” said Leah. “Because of the back-to-the-land movement in the area, we get so many kids who are so aware of the outdoors and so in tune to natural history.”
“I really like it, and I can’t wait to come back in the summer,” Fyn said. “It’s cool being around a lot of children my age.”
Fyn’s parents had lingered while dropping him off that morning, perhaps a little worried about leaving him with a group of children he didn’t know. But they would probably hear an earful about how much fun camp was when they returned for him that afternoon at the Tanglewood gates.
For more information, visit umaine.edu/tanglewood.